Robin Oakley

A first-hand account of a racehorse trainer’s battle for survival

Small trainers may have a better chance than the giants

Sport may well be ‘the great triviality’ as Timeform founder Phil Bull once put it, and racing as trivial as any. But many thousands of jobs depend on it. To get an idea of the impact the pandemic is having on the 550 licensed training yards in Britain, I called up my friend Simon Dow at his Epsom yard. Back at Clear Height stables, where he has had his greatest successes with horses such as Young Ern and Chief’s Song, Simon has around 30 horses. Typically, the first thoughts of this articulate workaholic were with those living in the London tower blocks visible on clear days from the Epsom gallops. ‘We have to remember how lucky we are by comparison. We have so much freedom.’

First problem in a lockdown, of course, is how to keep revved-up racehorses fit and healthy while obeying the rules for his five full-time staff and five part-time work riders. No galloping upsides, I guess. Some yards have turned out inmates into fields while they await news on any resumption of racing but Simon hasn’t got the grass to do that. Luckily, he says, the two-year-olds were already well on with developing their cardiovascular capacity. He is keeping them ticking over while resting ten of his older horses who have run on the all-weather through the winter. ‘With some creativity it’s not that difficult to keep up the social distancing.’ So far, none of the Dow team has had to self-isolate.

Are owners facing business losses starting to cut back? At least one, with a fellow Epsom trainer, has warned that he can’t continue on the same scale. But the life of small trainers is never easy. ‘We’re used to operating in a tunnel without much light at the end. Even if you win 20 races in a year and £200,000 of prize money, when it sounds like you are doing okay it is really tough to get a decent living.

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